London Film Festival 2014: Round-up Part 2

Town that Dreaded Sundown

The Town that Dreaded Sundown (Gomez-Rejon, 2014)

Not quite a remake, reboot, or sequel to the 1976 original, The Town that Dreaded Sundown sets itself in the real town that was set upon by the unsolved “Phantom Killer” murders in the 40s that then formed the basis of the original film 30 years later. Everyone in the town of Texarcana on the border of Texas and Arkansas knows its legacy – there are screenings of the original film every Halloween at the drive-in – so when a copycat killer strikes and reignites a hysteria that has been laying dormant for decades it feels as though the whole town itself is culpable.

The original Town that Dreaded Sundown is a minor but interesting horror movie – basically a set of effective sequences strung together by some dull procedural and some head-smackingly dumb slapstick – so it’s surprising to see so many interesting ideas being flung around here. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
does well to focus on the survivor of this new phantom’s first attack, rooting his film in the genuine protagonist that the original film lacked. And though the actual horror plotline is as routine as they come, the specifics of the real-life setting provide enough underpinning context and colour to keep things engaging, particularly in town hall scenes that explore the difficulty of having a town on a state border (two mayors, two sheriffs), the impact that the original string of murders had on the town, and the way that the first movie meant that they could consign it to history – effectively turning the Phantom murders into a myth that they didn’t have to engage with.

Gomez-Rejon has some visual style, too, smartly intercutting his action with footage from the original, and instilling some haunting imagery into his set pieces. The result is striking, original horror film that manages to say something new from something old.

The Tribe

The Tribe (Plemya, Slaboshpitsky, 2014)

The Tribe is performed entirely by untrained, deaf actors in Ukrainian Sign Language without subtitles, but director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky isn’t really interested in deafness. He is instead interested in the idea of a physical language, in characters who express themselves purely through action. His film is impactful to say the least, every frame a blunt object. The young performers are tremendously talented, pushing themselves to places where few professional actors would dare to go and conveying emotion and story entirely wordlessly. In fact, it’s remarkable just how much story is conveyed without the use of words.

It’s also a deeply unpleasant film, singularly sadistic in the way that it treats its characters as they journey through its cruel world, time and again forcing you to look at its graphic violence long past the point where its point has been made. This is most certainly deliberate, and Slaboshpitsky clearly wants his film to be a visceral, almost tangible experience. The experience is incredible in its sensory exploration – ironically for a film about deaf people, the sound design is stunning, and much of the films shots are extremely long and complex.

In the end, though, the film’s world is so alien and closed off that it never feels like anything more than a fantasy, and the lack of subtitles has a distancing effect where we are constantly working to make sense of the action that we can’t ever become fully immersed in it. Without any real-world analogues to clearly apply the film’s events to, and without any real emotional investment, I struggle to see what we as an audience can get out of The Tribe beyond a punch in the gut.

White Bird in a Blizzard

White Bird in a Blizzard (Araki, 2014)

Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, great though it may be, was seen by many as a watering-down of his aesthetic, a shot at the mainstream that felt like a betrayal from some quarters who had been so affected by his earlier, queerer, cult output. But Mysterious Skin looks like Pink Flamingos compared to White Bird in a Blizzard, a remarkably staid, dare-I-say dull offering from a director about which those descriptors never before seemed possible.

Shailene Woodley puts in a fine performance as a girl who’s volatile mother (Eva Green, who so desperately wants me to talk about her performance that I don’t want to give her the satisfaction of panning it) disappears one night, leaving her to grow up with a mystery hanging over her head, and Christopher Meloni is great as her decidedly wet – or is he? – father, but there’s a palpable sense that no one’s sure why this story is being told. The colours pop, the shoegazey soundtrack is cool, but it all amounts to nothing at all: a drab, by-the-numbers affair from a director who once seemed incapable of drawing in the lines.

Catch Me Daddy

Catch Me Daddy (Wolfe, 2014)

Sameena Ahmed was an absolutely deserving win for Best British Newcomer at this year’s festival – her performance as Laila, a young, charming girl on the run from her family with her boyfriend on the Yorkshire moors. The real star of the show here, however, is the photography, which captures the moors’ stark, for boding beautiful in gorgeous muted tones and draws a remarkable expressiveness from its nighttime scenes, some of which are only lit by the tiniest sliver of light.

The story itself has a great tension to it, particularly in the film’s first half where the small, warm world that that Laila and her boyfriend have carved out for themselves gives way to a game of cat-and-mouse with the thugs that her father has hired to bring her home. Individual moments have a searing intensity, and Ahmed is such a powerful, complicated protagonist that film never descends into pure genre. Sadly, the film’s final third descends into histrionics as it begins to tackle its honour-killing subject matter directly, and one can’t help but wonder if director and writers Daniel and Matthew Wolfe have enough of a grip on the emotions at play here. Still, it’s powerful stuff, and it feels as though every single person involved is a new voice in British cinema to look out for.

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